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Levien, Jonas Felix Australia (1840–1906)

by L. E. Fredman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Jonas Felix Australia Levien (1840-1906), agriculturist and politician, was born on 28 March 1840 at Williamstown, Port Phillip, son of Benjamin Goldsmith Levien and his wife Eliza, née Lindo. His father's family was of French origin and his mother Portuguese. Educated in 1858-59 at Geelong Grammar School, he was connected with that district all his life.

Levien entered politics as a conservative protectionist by defeating Peter Lalor for South Grant in 1871. At the elections of 1877 the supporters of Graham Berry won an overwhelming victory as an organized radical party. They were committed to a land tax which Levien, a nominal supporter, had opposed. Although the opposition capitulated, Levien, who had won the Barwon seat, joined four other members to vote against the bill. Meanwhile his opponent, John Ince, had submitted a petition to unseat him for engaging in the common practice of paying canvassers. The assembly ignored Levien's protest that Lalor, a member of the Elections and Qualifications Committee, bore him personal malice. By a party vote the committee issued a second report to rectify a loophole in the first which found Levien guilty of bribery, and declared the petitioner elected, awarding him costs. Levien represented Barwon in 1880-1906. As minister of mines and agriculture in the Service-Berry coalition in 1883-86 he introduced the bill which set up the Council of Agricultural Education, and became its first president. In the depressed 1890s he opposed new taxation and invariably voted on the conservative side.

Levien had early started a seed farm at Drysdale and later became a director of several companies in Melbourne, including the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society, the Colonial Mutual Fire Insurance Co., the Australian Mutual Livestock Insurance Co. and the Argus Permanent Building and Investment Society. He was appointed to several royal commissions on agricultural matters and was a member of the important shops and factories royal commission in 1901-03. One venture was less successful: in 1888 two years after he had opposed the scheme in parliament he had become chairman of Chaffey Bros Ltd, formed to promote an irrigation colony in north-western Victoria. Because of its huge debts and the complaints of the settlers, a royal commission inquired into the project in 1896. The commissioners criticized the Chaffeys for defective works and Levien for obtaining capital at excessive rates of interest. They added that Levien, 'who was believed to be possessed of large means, was induced to join the directorate in order to increase confidence'. Levien conceded that he had principal control of finance but claimed that the company owed him about £40,000 and that he had guaranteed large loans. His son, Harold, also gave evidence on behalf of the settlers.

Levien was one of the thirteen founders of the Australian Natives' Association, and was elected a vice-president and member of the first executive in July 1871, but he was not active in the years of the society's greatest influence. He died on 24 May 1906 at his home in St Kilda Road. On 15 March 1871 at Sydney he had married his first cousin, Clara Levien, and left a daughter and three sons, one of whom, Cecil John, became a prominent New Guinea pioneer. According to tradition Levien was the first Jewish child born in Victoria but his children were brought up as Anglicans.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • J. A. Alexander, The Life of George Chaffey (Melb, 1928)
  • L. M. Goldman, The Jews in Victoria in the Nineteenth Century (Melb, 1954)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1877-78, 1 (D15, 16), 1896, 3 (19)
  • L. E. Fredman, ‘Some Victorian Jewish politicians’, Australian Jewish Historical Society, Journal, 4 (1954-58)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 25 May 1906
  • private information.

Citation details

L. E. Fredman, 'Levien, Jonas Felix Australia (1840–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/levien-jonas-felix-australia-4016/text6369, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 17 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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